In A Nutshell
Rudyard Kipling (his official first name was Joseph, but he preferred to use his spectacular middle name Rudyard) is a British writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Kipling is still totally famous today, man—he reached J.K. Rowling-levels of renown during his lifetime (which, incidentally, was 1865-1936). In fact, Kipling was so successful in his day that he received a Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. And his novel Kim continues to be a big contributer to Kipling's reputation: over a hundred years after its publication in 1901, it still made the Big Read, the BBC's 2003 list of the U.K.'s most beloved books.
Still, while Kipling continues to be well known and well loved for novels like Kim and children's stories like the The Jungle Book and the Just-So Stories, his reputation has taken a dive over the course of the last century.
What makes Kipling highly controversial, both during his lifetime and now, is his pro-imperialist attitude. See, Kipling has always been associated with his representations of India, but the India he portrays is specifically British India—oppressed India subject to Britain's colonial domination.
Kipling may write about India's diverse peoples and cultures with both realism and affection, but he always appears to assume that the British Empire has a natural right and even a responsibility to maintain control over India's government. We get into this topic more in the "Themes" section under "Race," but here we will just say that Kipling's attitude toward the people of India often seems either deeply condescending or horribly oppressive—or both.
The clearest example of Kipling's pro-imperial way of thinking is his strikingly offensive 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden." Kipling wrote this poem after the Spanish-American War to try to encourage the United States to become more imperialist, and join the British Empire in conquering and colonizing "the silent, sullen peoples" of the rest of the world.
Because of Kipling's unapologetic support for the British Empire's violent expansion into other parts of the world, he has been and always will be associated with the pre-World War I height of British imperial competition.
However, Kipling's work is not quite as simple as this brief summary of his terrible politics might suggest. Even with his very strong prejudices and assumptions about the importance of the British Raj (Britain's period of direct rule over India from 1858 to 1947), he still brings a vivid personal perspective to his portrayals of both Indian and British people living in India, and his work gives us an often-surprising perspective on what life was like under the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.
Kipling has made a cultural mark that still continues today, even though it is a politically problematic one. The person who probably best sums up this complexity of Kipling's enduring influence is Salman Rushdie, the award-winning contemporary novelist. Rushdie says about Kipling:
[I have had] many of the difficulties with Kipling that a lot of people from India have, but every true Indian reader knows that no non-Indian writer understood India as well as Kipling. As a child I loved the Jungle Books, long before I realised that there were ideological problems with them. If you want to look at the India of Kipling's time, there is no writer who will give it to you better. (Source.)
One Possible, Real-life Reason For Why Kipling Portrays India With So Much Affection
Kipling was born in Mumbai (then called Bombay), India in 1865. He had a great time as a young child visiting all of the city's public spaces and seeing the great diversity of Indian life, the echoes of which we can still totally see in Kim.
But when he was just six years old, his mother sent him to England to live with a foster family while getting a formal education. He had an awful time with his foster mother, who was both physically and emotionally abusive towards the young Kipling. When a family friend saw Kipling at age eleven, he realized that Kipling was going to have a breakdown if this kept going on. (Source.)
This friend wrote to Kipling's parents to tell them, basically, listen you guys, I know that you are halfway around the world, but you have to do something for your son or he's going to fall apart. Kipling's mother got the message and arranged for Kipling to go to a new school, where he found a place for himself at last. (Source.)
Still, this sharp jolt—from a happy early childhood in India to a truly miserable and deprived later childhood in England—obviously made a mark on Kipling's work. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of his books for and about kids take place in India, which comes across as a place of endless romance and excitement (as opposed to dull England). And Kim features the story of a boy left to do pretty much exactly what he wants for most of his childhood, perhaps as a kind of wish fulfillment for grown-up Kipling himself.
Why Should I Care?
Kim has lots of cool stuff in it, but then, so do a lot of other texts. Looking for spies? How about The Bourne Legacy, starring Grumpy Cat—oops—we mean Jeremy Renner? If you want to find out more about British India, you could read E.M. Forster's complicated anti-imperial novel Passage to India or see Ben Kingsley's Oscar-winning performance in Gandhi.
As for spiritual questions about escaping the cycle of illusion that is human life (according to Buddhism), have we got a suggestion for you: none other than young Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, in Little Buddha. You're welcome.
Since you have all of these options to check out—and we do recommend that you give at least some of these a try—why should you pick up Rudyard Kipling's controversial Kim? Well, Kim isn't all spying and exotic locations. It's also about two people looking for answers in this life—something we all eventually try to find in one way or another.
Kim is an orphaned boy who wants to find a place for himself, both professionally and personally, and all of the adventures that Kim undergoes are like weird, highly individual and specific forms of job training. Traveling through India with the Teshoo lama is like a (mostly) unpaid internship—and luckily for Kim, if he makes it through his training, he will get a permanent job with the British Secret Service. If only all interns were so fortunate.
By contrast, the Teshoo lama is an old man who is ready to find the ultimate purpose of his religious faith. As someone nearing the end of his career (he was once the Abbot of Suchzen Monastery, but he has left his job to travel India), he's ready to start thinking about retirement—if by retirement you mean leaving this endless cycle of rebirth that is the Buddhist concept of samsâra.
Since Kim is at the beginning of his worldly life and the lama is preparing to leave this existence, their quests seem like exact opposites. Even so, they both support each other through their individual explorations to reach their ultimate goals. The novel Kim is about all of the ways in which we as people pursue meaning—professional, personal, religious, cultural, familial… you name it and it's in this book. And even if our searches lead to very different places, we can still share that experience of looking with everyone else on the globe.
Kim is an undeniably problematic and even brutal book, in all of the ways that we discuss in our "In a Nutshell" section. It's impossible to read Kim as a twenty-first century reader without noticing its commitment to a set of pro-colonial values that we find horrifying today. Yet, among all of Kipling's many ethical flaws, this book is also an enduring story about two people from completely different cultural backgrounds finding common ground in their search for themselves. Kim reminds us that, no matter where we come from or what we want out of life, we are all trying to find something—and it's often easier to do that with someone else along for the ride.